Monty Python and the Holy Grail & God Appearing in the Clouds

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a scene where the knights of the round table have a vision of God in the heavens and he commands them to find the holy grail. About 50% of MPatHG is quite funny, while the other half is very stupid. This scene is meant to be in the former, but it in the latter. It’s very stupid in a kind of interesting way, though, because it is stupid in a way that is profoundly typical of its time.

MPatHG was released in 1975 and made by men (the pythons) who were in their mid 30s at the time. (They ranged from 32 to 36 years old.) Having grown up primarily in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, they were at the height of the rejection of the old institutions which had failed Europe so spectacularly in two world wars separated by a scant 31 years. When Jack Weinberg famously said, in 1964, that his group didn’t trust anyone over the age of 30—he didn’t really mean it, he was just trying to annoy a reporter, but he accidentally captured a zeitgeist, which is what really matters, not his intended meaning—that put the cutoff at being born in 1934, while the oldest python (John Cleese) was born in 1939. What’s important to remember is that this spirit was not about age per se, but about generation; the new generation didn’t trust the previous generations. The pythons were in the trusted generation, and did not trust anything before them.

The scene of God giving the knights their quest begins with the knights showing respect at the heavenly vision, by kneeling and averting their eyes, and the pythons have God being annoyed at this. This is stupid beyond description, of course, which can get distracting, but its stupidy perfectly captures that spirit, pervasive in the 1960s and 1970s that everything traditional is bad. To the pythons it was funny to have even God himself annoyed at things merely because they were old, since God was part of what was old, but also an authority figure for what was old.

There was a second aspect to this humor which was also bound up in its time period. Part of the rejection of the old was the rejection not merely of the particular ceremonies of the old, but of all ceremonies. Not merely of the particular signs of respect that were old, but of all signs of respect. The pythons depict God as tired of signs of respect and wanting to just get to the point, just as the zeitgeist of the culture was to get rid of everything “superfluous” and get to the point.

This gets to the curious idea of “relevance” which mattered so much at the time, perhaps most notoriously in the priests who put on street clothes and picked up acoustic guitars in an effort to be “relevant”. History has not been kind to them, and I doubt that it should be, but this may at least make the action somewhat intelligible. The spirit of the time was to strip away everything rich, everything meaningful, everything symbolic—and to get as close to a bare animal immediacy as rational language would permit. It is that strange state of mind that permitted intelligent, educated men like the pythons to have the God who told Moses that he would shield Moses when he passed by because Moses could not see God’s face and live, complain when people averted their eyes.

The Youth Movement of the 1960s was made up of very timid people, which is why they were so allergic to symbols and rituals. They could only deal with things that mean nothing more than themselves, and even then often only with the help of drugs. Of course, they told themselves that they had the courage to deal with things as they were instead of hiding behind symbols—which is why they often seemed like idiots.

But they weren’t idiots, they were merely (frequently) neglected. Those born during the war and those born in its aftermath (the boomers) were born to exhausted parents who had lost faith in everything and were too scared to really raise their children. That’s why the main thing they really passed on to their children was their fear. (Let me reiterate, I’m only really talking about that fraction of these generations that became the Youth Movement.)

It has been said that great movies transcend their time and speak the human condition, while bad movies are mired in their times; thus it is bad movies that are most useful for historical research. Monty Python and the Holy Grail shows that it need not be entire movies; bad moments in good movies do just as well. (That said, I don’t think that you can really call MPatHG a good movie; it’s barely even a movie. It’s really an hour and a half long loosely connected series of (mostly) medieval-themed sketches which range anywhere from brilliant to terrible, though even the terrible sketches occasionally have a brilliant line in them.)